Bagram burning PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sgt. 1st Class C. Joel Peavy CJTF-101 Public Affairs   
Tuesday, 28 October 2008

081020_A_7405P_001.jpgBAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (Oct. 20, 2008) – A gentle wind swept across the tops of the overgrown stalks of vegetation.  Even though this part of Bagram Air Field is beautiful, it is also deceptively deadly.  Underneath the stalks of reeds lies a minefield.  In the middle of the minefield is a creek that has become a sore point due to its flooding each year.

Coyote Creek, largely ignored for the past six years, runs across the north end of Bagram and is the primary source of water for two villages that hug a chunk of perimeter on opposite ends of the air field.

The Mine Action Center planned a controlled burn of exactly 39,725 square meters of dense brush and overgrowth according to MAC operations noncommissioned officer, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Blunck.

“We have it mapped out and are logging the time and location of each grenade thrown,” said Blunck, a Forsyth, Ill. native.  “Using incendiary grenades lets us monitor each area as we begin to burn.  If one area starts to burn too rapidly or looks like it’s about to cause an inferno, we can control it better with the fire department here.”

Burning this large swath of land began as a response to local villagers concerns and issues that had been addressed through the Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team and elevated to the base commander’s attention.

Maj. David Bergman, an Australian Army officer, is the MAC’s officer in charge and took this chance to solve what amounted to several problems, once all of the stages had been planned out.

“The village to the west of Bagram gets flooded each wet season because the creek is backed up with six years worth of silt,” Bergman said in an Australian accent, pointing to a map with highlighted areas indicating active minefields and cleared minefields on Bagram.  “East of us the village suffers from drought conditions each year.”

What is the problem that causes the flood on one end of the creek and drought on the other?  According to Bergman there is a culvert that has metal grates on both sides of it which are clogged up from the silt and other debris that has drifted downstream each wet season.

“Once we began looking into the problems raised during a meeting with the village elders, we found out this project would have several effects,” Bergman explains.  All of the effects are positive for all parties involved.

“They thought we were purposely blocking the water so it would flood one village and cause drought problems in the other.  What they didn’t know is that we have our own problem with it here on BAF.”

That problem is a major concern to commanders at all levels for medical, morale and living condition issues.

“Basically, the north end of BAF floods each year in the wet season.”  Blunck went on to say, “that makes it rough on the troops and really hard on us to do our mission at the same time.”

The MAC hasn’t been able to clear this small piece of real estate, a precious commodity on a military base, so units can use it to increase mission capability or even erect living areas.

By burning off the vegetation and undergrowth, the MAC will now be able to use its mine clearing teams to the fullest extent and in the safest environment.

“Mechanical clearing of this area hasn’t been accomplished yet,” Gny. Sgt. Brian Lee said.  “The plan is to burn this area off, then the teams can clear the area with their mine detectors.”

Though more time consuming, using the troop on the ground method is the preferred method of de-mining, over mechanical clearing.  The burn will allow these troops to see and navigate the area safely and thoroughly with mine detectors.

“Once the troops get done with their sweep, we can bring in the explosive dogs,” Lee continues.  “If the dogs go in and certify the area, then we can hand out the certificate which is what everyone wants.”

The certificate isn’t like anything Willy Wonka could have given out.  This certificate allows a unit to claim the land, submit work proposals and begin using the land without fear of setting off a mine.

Lee says it gets weird sometimes when it comes to land on Bagram.  “We have people stalking us almost or even becoming squatters waiting on that certificate.”

Because of the benefits the controlled burn provides, the team wasted no time in arranging for and conducting the burn.  Bergman watched on with the troops from the Explosive Hazardous Coordination Cell as the first grenade was tossed to start the blaze.  Not more than 30 minutes later, three-quarters of the job was complete.

“It’s burning good,” Lee said.  “The fire is headed (away from the original location) to the flight line.  You may see the coyote run out too.  He came across here earlier.”

There isn’t a problem with animals or animal control on Bagram, but as Lee said, the coyote did come running down one of the trails that led from the flight line to the creek head.  A trail of dust clouds behind him, each one marked with a small poof in the air as he ran for cover in the thick brush.

The EHCC team lofted just over 30 incendiary grenades into the cordoned off area.  Just as Blunck said, each grenade was documented as far as time and location goes, then monitored for several minutes to see if the immediate area would catch fire or if the inferno would kick up.

Most of the grenades were on target and created the conditions the team wanted.  A few near the creek head however didn’t.

“I’m disappointed that the grenade I threw went out,” Australian Army Sgt. Lisa Tucker exclaimed as the device sputtered out in what appeared to be a rather large puddle hidden in the brush.

Otherwise all went well.  “There were no incidents, the wind cooperated and the burn was nice and slow.  Didn’t take off like an inferno, like we thought it would,” said Blunck.
“If we hadn’t gotten this burned and began now, it would’ve been next summer before we could,” Bergman explained.  “We aren’t going in right away to de-mine the creek bed because we only have until the middle of November.  So we are going to send in the armored machinery to pull all of the trash and build up out of the creek bed to allow for a natural water flow.”

With the quick fix being a return to normal water flow, the long-term fix is more involved and requires planning on the Coalition’s part and maintenance on the Afghan’s part.

Bergman and Lee traded points concerning the long term fix.
“We will be able to build in retaining basins and better irrigation points next spring.  We just don’t for see the time to do it now,” Bergman says.

“And once we get the water flow problem fixed, the Afghan people will have to make sure the trash is cleaned out of the ditches and the water is flowing,” Lee said.

The burn was completed as planned by the MAC without any problems.  Bergman wasted no time in congratulating and thanking all of the team.  The next mission will be to de-silted the bed.  All of them took a breath and headed off to begin work on planning that. 

About an hour and a half was all that was needed to begin the process of alleviating six years of problems.  Now the MAC and other engineers can start work on what needs to be done with little time to spare before mother-nature halts the progress.

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